Was John’s baptism a new ordinance or were the people already familiar with it?

Dr. Robert J. Matthews, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University: Baptism by water was not new to the Jews of New Testament times. Although it is not completely clear from either secular history or the scriptures that the Jews were actually baptizing one another at that time, it was a regular practice among them to baptize gentile converts to Judaism. (See Madeline S. and J. Lane Miller, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, New York, Harper and Row, 1961, p. 60, “Baptism.”) Baptism was known to Adam and the patriarchs (see Moses 6:53–59; Moses 6:65; Moses 8:24), and it was an integral duty of the Aaronic Priesthood under the law of Moses (see D&C 84:25–28; 1 Cor. 10:1–4). Also, the Dead Sea groups seem to have been practicing washing and immersion in water as a religious performance. Therefore, baptism was known to the Jews in the meridian of time.

It is noticeable that when John came among the people, they did not ask him, “What new thing is this that you do?” but rather they asked, “Who are you?” They did not question the ordinance, but they did want to identify John. For this purpose a delegation from the Pharisees was sent to question him. They pointedly inquired if he were the Christ, or if he were Elias. (See John 1:19–21.) These questions were the result of their own conclusions about the scriptures. It is evident that they had anticipated the coming of a Messiah and/or an Elias who would perform baptisms. Therefore, when John came among them baptizing, they wondered if he might be one of those persons. When he denied that he was the Christ or the particular Elias to whom they had reference (one who would restore all things rather than one to prepare a way), they asked him again: “… Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?” (John 1:22.) They also asked him, “… Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?” (John 1:25.)

That such a discussion took place between the Jewish rulers and John the Baptist indicates they were familiar with the ordinance of baptism.

Jesus spoke in many synagogues. Who supervised these synagogues and what were their services like during that time?

Victor L. Ludlow, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University: The synagogue was a Jewish religious institution long before Jesus preached in the synagogues of Capernaum and Nazareth. The synagogue and its worship services were firmly established among the Jews before they returned from the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century before Christ. The earliest synagogues were known as houses of study, prayer, and assembly.

Before any group of Jews could establish a new congregation and build or use a synagogue, they had to have at least ten active male members, age 13 or older, who could constitute a minyan (or quorum) of worshipers for the services that were to be held three times daily. These members would elect a board of elders who would supervise the religious practices and communal needs of the congregation. The elders would also appoint the teachers (or rabbis as they were later called) and direct the financial affairs of the synagogue. Thus the synagogue was a democratic, voluntary, and independent institution, and each synagogue determined its own needs and practices. This fact partially explains why there were hundreds of synagogues in Jerusalem during Christ’s lifetime. They were also established every place where ten male Jews could gather together. Paul, in his missionary journeys, visited synagogues throughout the Mediterranean area, many of which were established centuries before the birth of Jesus.

The synagogue services were patterned after some aspects of temple worship: (1) Services were held three times a day when the congregations gathered in their prayer houses or synagogues while the priests were offering their sacrifices at the temple. (2) The men and women sat in different sections, with the women usually in the rear or in a special balcony section. This practice was patterned after the custom of separating the women from the men in the Court of the Women of the temple. (3) The main entrance to the synagogue was on the east side, as with the temple. (4) The Holy Ark, which contained the Torah and other scriptures, was placed on the wall facing Jerusalem and the temple. (5) A vestibule separated the main synagogue sanctuary from the street so that the thoughts and cares of the outer world would be shed before entering the holiness of the inner sanctuary. (6) Many psalms (songs) and prayers of the synagogue services were patterned after those of the temple.

The synagogue became the center of social and religious life for many Jews as the popularity of animal sacrifice in the second temple in Jerusalem began to decline and as the people felt themselves alienated from the priests and Levites.

During Jesus’ life, the temple was controlled by the Sadducees and their priestly hierarchy, who remained somewhat aloof from the common people. Pious Jews felt obligated to attend the temple only on the three “pilgrim festivals” of each year—Passover (held in the spring—April), Shabuot (summer—June), and Succot (fall—October). For the rest of the year, the synagogue was their religious center. Even in Jerusalem itself there were 394 synagogues functioning while the second temple was still standing. (Talmud, Ket. 105a.) There was even a synagogue on the temple mount itself, and full details are given in the Mishnah of how the Israelites celebrated some religious festivals by alternating their attendance at the sacrifices in the temple with prayer in the synagogue. (Sot. 7:7.)

The synagogue attracted many Jews, since it was an independent and democratic institution where no priest was needed to conduct the services. Anyone with superior learning and character could qualify for the post of rabbi or teacher. The elders of each congregation would establish their own religious services, and they usually defined their worship in terms of learning and philanthropy as much as in prayer and meditation.

Basically, the Jews of Christ’s time felt more comfortable in the synagogue with its many independent and pharisaic philosophies than in the temple with its formalized worship rituals under control of the Sadducees.

Were the blessings of the temple available to the saints in Jesus’ time, or did they become available after his death?

Dr. Robert J. Matthews, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University: Since the nature of man has not changed since the fall of Adam, 1 it requires the same ordinances and powers of the gospel to save mankind at one time or another. Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ has been the same in every age of the world. The gospel with its ordinances was first revealed to Adam and was taught and practiced by the ancient saints at various times from Adam to the time of Jesus. Since the plan of salvation is older than this earth, there has been no difficulty in the Lord revealing the same ordinances and principles in every dispensation. 2

The gospel that was taught to the ancients contained certain fundamental elements of the temple endowment, as is verified by the explanation to Figure 3, Facsimile No. 2, of the Book of Abraham. We are also told that the Lord has “always commanded” his people to build special houses for the administration of sacred ordinances. (See D&C 124:39–40.) Thus, ordinances that are now performed in the temple have been available to men and women living upon the earth whenever the gospel was preached and received among them. However, we understand that no ordinances were performed for the dead until after Jesus died and inaugurated the preaching of the gospel in the world of departed spirits. 3 Thereafter, the Church in the meridian of time was privileged to perform the ordinances of the gospel not only for the living, as had been done in earlier dispensations, but also for the dead. This is partially evidenced by Paul’s reference to baptism for the dead. (See 1 Cor. 15:29.)

The temple ceremony pertains to exaltation and eternal life, and references in the New Testament show that the members of the Church at that time knew that. For example, Peter reminded the Saints that they had been given “all things that pertain unto life and godliness, … Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature. …” (2 Pet. 1:3–4.) Paul spoke of obtaining a “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8), and of the saints becoming “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.” (Rom. 8:17.) And John wrote of the faithful becoming “kings and priests unto God” to “reign on the earth.” (Rev. 1:6; Rev. 5:10.) In the Church we recognize these as matters pertaining to the higher ordinances of the gospel that are administered in the temple.

That such things are mentioned repeatedly in the New Testament epistles is significant, because these epistles were not written for nonmembers but were of a regulatory nature directed to the branches of the Church. The manner in which these items are presented in the epistles, without explanation, is indicative that the persons to whom the epistles were written were already familiar with the doctrines. Consequently, those in the Church today who are familiar with temple ordinances can understand from these epistles that the saints in the New Testament times had the same temple blessings and ordinances.

President Heber C. Kimball taught that the temple endowment that is in the Church in this dispensation is the same in principle as it was in the ancient Church. He further noted that Jesus “was the one that inducted his Apostles into these ordinances.” 4 President Joseph Fielding Smith stated that it was his belief that Peter, James, and John received their endowments on the Mount of Transfiguration. 5 Since they were instructed not to tell of the occurrences on the Mount until after Jesus was “risen again from the dead” (Matt. 17:9), it appears that similar blessings were not given to the other members of the Twelve, or to the Church, until after the Savior’s resurrection. Furthermore, there is a strong suggestion from apocryphal sources that the 40-day post-resurrection ministry of Jesus consisted in part of the establishment of a sacred ritual among the disciples. 6 The scriptures are quite silent concerning the details of this, but Luke identifies it as a time in which Jesus was “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3.)

Although today we refer to these sacred items as “temple” ordinances, they could be administered in other locations under certain circumstances if no temple were available. This principle is alluded to in Doctrine and Covenants 124:28–31. [D&C 124:28–31] High mountains and other places have served as holy sites until a temple could be constructed. 7 As a consequence, at one period of time baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi River at Nauvoo; 8 and endowments were given on Ensign Peak at the north edge of the Salt Lake Valley. 9 Likewise an endowment house was erected in the northwest corner of Temple Square and used until the Salt Lake Temple was built. 10 Since the temple in Jerusalem was in the hands of the apostate Jewish rulers, it is certain that these special ordinances were performed in other places by the Church in New Testament times.


  •   1.

    Joseph Fielding Smith (compiler), Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Company, 1938, p. 60.

  •   2.

    Ibid., pp. 168, 308.

  •   3.

    Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, Inc., 1955, pp. 164–65.

  •   4.

    Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, pp. 240–41.

  •   5.

    Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, pp. 165, 170.

  •   6.

    See Hugh Nibley, When the Lights Went Out, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Co., 1970, pp. 32–88.

  •   7.

    Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, pp. 170, 231–34. See also explanation by President Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 252.

  •   8.

    Smith, Ibid., p. 169.

  •   9.

    Ibid., p. 165.

  •   10.

    Ibid., p. 245.

  • [illustration] Herod’s temple.

    The form of the Sermon on the Mount seems fragmented. Are there other examples of this type of literature? Is it simply a seeming disunity? A problem of recording and transmitting?

    Dr. Monte S. Nyman, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University: Because of the seeming fragmentation of the Sermon on the Mount, a common teaching in the Christian world is that the Sermon on the Mount was not given on a single occasion but is “made up of aphorisms, maxims, and illustrations which were remembered and treasured out of many discourses.” (Interpreters Bible, vol. 1, p. 279; see also pp. 155–164.) That this is not the case is shown in the Book of Mormon.

    Jesus, upon visiting the Nephites after his resurrection, gave basically the same sermon to the Nephites (see 3 Ne. 12–14) and, upon concluding his remarks, told those assembled that they had “heard the things which I taught before I ascended to my Father.” (3 Ne. 15:1.) While this statement does not positively declare that the Sermon was given at one time, it does imply such, and the fact that he gave it all at once to the Nephites would further indicate that it had also been done earlier. Why then does it appear to be fragmentary? Some explanations are in order.

    While the Sermon has been compared with rabbinical and Greek philosophical writings, it stands as a work of its own. The seeming disunity results from its content. Again this is clarified by the Book of Mormon account, the Gospel of Matthew having obviously suffered the loss of many plain and precious parts. (1 Ne. 13:23–29.) That this is the case and that the differences are not just differences between two sermons is shown by the fact that Joseph Smith included the additional teachings from the Book of Mormon sermon in his inspired translation of the Bible. The Sermon need not be excused as a problem of recording and transmitting but should be seen as perhaps one of the texts that suffered from alterations, deletions, and possibly poor translation.

    The Sermon is fragmented in the sense that parts of it are addressed to different audiences. The first part (Matt. 5:1–6, 24; 3 Ne. 12:1–13:24) was addressed to the multitude that had assembled. In the Book of Mormon, the Savior preceded his remarks to the multitude with instructions to the Twelve. (3 Ne. 11:21–41.) The second part (Matt. 6:25–34; 3 Ne. 13:25–34) was addressed to the Twelve whom he had chosen. The third part is again addressed to the multitude. Thus the three separate sections in the Sermon show the instructions of general application separated by specific instructions directed to the Twelve.

    Further fragmentation of the Sermon might be observed in the Matthew account because of its abruptness in changing subjects. The Beatitudes, a comparison of the listener to salt and to a light, the fulfillment of the law, and a comparison of the law with Christ’s teachings—all seem to be treated singly and separately in chapter 5 of Matthew. [Matt. 5] But the Sermon to the Nephites ties all of those subjects to the principle that the Savior introduces as he begins his instructions to the multitude “to come unto me,” making the Sermon as recorded in the Book of Mormon a beautiful rendition of the role of the baptized member of the Church.

    The world unfortunately has lost the unifying concept of this masterful Sermon. With this plain and precious truth restored we can gain a fuller appreciation of the Sermon through a study of the Book of Mormon text.

    Why are the Gospels so incomplete on the details of Jesus’ life?

    Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson, professor of history and ancient scripture, Brigham Young University: Only one Gospel begins with Jesus’ greatness in the preexistence. Only two Gospels tell of his miraculous birth. Three Gospels give only one passover in his life, leaving the full three-year ministry to be mentioned by the fourth Gospel. Obviously these short records were never intended to be biographies. If not, what are they supposed to be?

    Joseph Smith gave an illuminating answer by using a new title: “The Testimony” of Matthew and John. These changes in the Inspired Version highlight the special nature of each Gospel.

    Each writer had the same fundamental purpose as John. John was the last surviving apostle chosen personally by Jesus, and his language is characterized by “testimony” and “testify.” Of the whole New Testament, 70 percent of these words of personal knowledge (maturía and marturéo) are in the writings of John, who is preoccupied with his mission to witness that he knew for himself. One need only compare the opening chapter of John (“we beheld his glory”—John 1:14) with the opening verses of 1 John (“we have seen with our eyes … and our hands have handled”—1 Jn. 1:1). This last Gospel writer spoke for all, emphasizing that he wrote “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:31.)

    Many have concluded that John’s writing is only testimony and not history. In reality, John writes history organized around his testimony, as the name Gospel shows. Evidently from the first the lives of Jesus were called Gospels—but why? The Greek term euangélion is compounded from angeliía, a “message” or “announcement” plus the prefix meaning “good” or “favorable.” The meaning of gospel is “good news.” The accounts about Christ were called Gospels because they preached the gospel, the wonderful message that he had overcome death and sin. Although all Gospels differ in how they lay the background for this conclusion, all are detailed on the conclusion itself, the story of the death and resurrection. For instance, a third of Mark and nearly half of John are devoted to the last week of Christ’s life.

    Every fact we can learn of Christ compels our interest, but what he did for us purchased our salvation. The Gospels were not designed as life stories. Instead they report the facts about Christ that preach his gospel to us: that he was sent by God, showed God’s power in his life and teachings, gave authority to his church, willingly sacrificed life itself for our eternal life, and finally was resurrected to pioneer the resurrection of us all. This magnificent story is the outline and testimony of the four New Testament Gospels.